This year marks the 30-year anniversary since the Robert T. Stafford Act was amended to include funding for hazard mitigation grants as a way to help communities recover and rebuild after a Presidentially-declared disaster. In the last three decades, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs have expanded to three mitigation grant programs for pre-and post-disaster events and recently surpassed $15 billion in funding provided for state, local, tribal and territorial mitigation projects.  Communities across the nation are now more resilient, and that growth continues. 

Over the next few weeks, FEMA employees will share their reflections on the value and benefits of mitigation.  This week, we’ll speak with Hazard Mitigation Assistance Branch Chief Karen Helbrecht, based in Washington, D.C. Helbrecht has worked with the grant programs since their inception; here she reflects on the history and growth of the mitigation programs.

Take a few minutes and share how you got involved with FEMA.

I started with FEMA in January 1988 and later that fall, the Stafford Act, which is the law to guide FEMA’s disaster assistance programs, was amended to create the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.  At that time, the only mitigation program requirement for states was to do a mitigation plan six months after a Presidential Disaster Declaration. The opportunity to develop and implement the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program was a huge step in starting FEMA’s mitigation journey.

FEMA initially required that states develop a mitigation plan six months after a Presidentially-declared disaster, but there were very limited opportunities for mitigation project funding. Now, 30 years later, FEMA has a number of programs that fund mitigation activities. Can you talk a little bit about the range of what some of those programs are?

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, our post-disaster mitigation program created in 1988, is the largest mitigation program that FEMA implements.  In 1994, Congress authorized the Flood Mitigation Assistance program through funding from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The primary goal of this program is to mitigate structures that are insured through the NFIP. The focus for the program remains on properties that have been significantly, and repetitively, flooded over time and to help those property owners get to a safer space.

Similar to the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program is also authorized by an amendment to the Stafford Act (2000) and receives annual funding by Congress. Nationally, this competitive grant application program funds projects before a disaster occurs, with the goal of mitigating the severity of damage experienced by impacted communities.

You originally had a small annual budget to offer grants. How have these programs grown over the years and what has been provided to communities as of today?

When I started with FEMA, we only had $200,000, nationally, to provide mitigation grants on an annual basis. In the past few weeks, FEMA has achieved a milestone of providing over $15 billion dollars in mitigation grants across the country. This is an achievement I’m proud to be a part of. We’ve been able to make a difference in every state, and in many communities, by making them safer through mitigation. In addition, many tribal nations and territories are now more resilient as well.

It’s also exciting to see the growing interest in our two competitive grant programs. We have communities across the nation who apply for these competitive grants. They may not be successfully funded one year, but they reapply in another year and are able to get the funding to implement projects.

I think what’s exciting about our mitigation programs is that they bring together a variety of stakeholders –and that’s important for mitigation to be successful. It’s the collaboration at the different levels of government with the different types of expertise needed to identify what’s an appropriate mitigation solution to pull it all together. And I think, for mitigation in the future, the solution of yesterday may look very different as we move into the future and have different technologies available to us and different ways of understanding what our risks are.

As this program has expanded, can you talk a little bit about what was available to a community in 1988 versus what might be available now.

With just a couple hundred thousand dollars each year, we were only able to do public education and outreach, which is always important. We provided information to individuals after a disaster about how they could repair more sustainably and incorporate mitigation into their repairs. But we couldn’t fund those repairs for them.

Today, with our grant programs, we can elevate hundreds of structures in a community and we can do acquisitions, or voluntary buyouts, of properties and move individuals out of harm’s way and restore those lands to open space where they’ll remain a sustainable way to absorb future flood waters and decrease [property] losses.

FEMA can do seismic retrofits of schools. We can fund seismic retrofits of homes in places such as Salt Lake City.  These homeowners know that when an earthquake happens, they can evacuate their homes safely and not be impacted by falling fireplaces and bricks around their home. They call it “Fix the Bricks.” We can build tornado safe rooms in schools across a community. We fund hurricane shelters for communities to help them so they can evacuate safely and know that they’ve got a safe place to be with their families and neighbors.

In what other ways has the program changed or improved over time?

I think the program has really grown over the years. Every disaster creates challenges and opportunities for FEMA. We’ve looked at the way we do cost benefit analysis, which can be a challenge for individuals and communities to look at and determine if the work they want to do will be financially beneficial.

FEMA requires that the benefits of these projects are greater than the cost and it’s important to value the taxpayer’s investment in these projects. Over the years, FEMA has streamlined and simplified that process to the extent that we can, in compliance with the law, to make it easier to do that. This is called “pre-calculated” benefits.

For homes that are designated by local officials after an event as “substantially damaged,” we can do elevations of these structures. Under a certain threshold, we know that these are going to be cost effective. We can also acquire properties that are under that threshold, which makes it easier for communities to evaluate different options.

Let’s look toward the future, where do you see the future of mitigation?

I think the future of mitigation for FEMA is really looking at, and continuing to work collaboratively, with our state, local, tribal and territorial partners, especially helping them understand how important mitigation is to building a culture of preparedness throughout the nation.

To minimize decisions being made without information about what’s at risk, it’s important for us to encourage communities to adopt and enforce building codes. It is important to make smarter development decisions, on an ongoing basis, with how they’re developing their communities in the future. This is essential before the next disaster hits.

We need to think about our risks as we [provide funds to] build infrastructure. We need to think about being resilient with that infrastructure. So, when building new schools, we need to make sure they’re not located in a hazardous area. There are always going to be events and disasters that impact schools and communities. Mitigation is always going to be important to help people become more resilient for when they rebuild, but it’s important to build stronger and safer.